Those of you who read my attempts at writing for the Energy Saving Trust blog will not be surprised to hear that I have bought myself a bike here in Bulgaria. The fact that you are unsurprised sets you apart from the average Bulgarian, who is shocked that I would choose to travel on two wheels. The top two phrases that I seem to hear here are “Oh, but it’s very far” in response to my telling people that we live in the Ovcha Kupel suburb in the outskirts of Sofia, and “Oh, but it’s very dangerous” when I tell people that I cycle.
But the strange thing is that Sofia is really quite a pleasant place to cycle. There are a whole host of off-road cycle paths and convenient subways that allow you to traverse the city without throwing yourself in front of a car. I am also yet to encounter a roundabout, which in my experience is where drivers most like to cut you up/try to run you over. Only about 2km of my 12km commute to work is on the roads – and a stretch of that is only on the road because I’m scared of the dogs that attacked me the first time I tried that particular section of off-road path.
In fact, the key hazard is not cars, but the bizarre fact that the majority of residents in Sofia like to walk into cycle paths/roads without in any way checking if the path is clear. There have been far more instances of me nearly hitting a pedestrian than of cars narrowly missing me.
To be fair to the sceptics, there are a few roads in Sofia that are very busy and probably best avoided on a bike, but that’s probably true of most cities. And the cycle paths don’t go to every part of town yet, but the municipal government in Sofia is working on it.
A report by Rainer Muhlhoff and Felix Creutzig suggests that the low popularity of cycling (with only around 1% modal share) in Sofia, added to a decrease in the popularity of public transport (which decreased by 16 percentage points within 9 years) and a rapid increase in car ownership, means that Sofia is at severe risk of becoming a car-dependent city if high priority is not given to improving both active and public transport. However, it draws the promising conclusion that the less developed urban transportation system (for both public and private transport) is an opportunity; Sofia has good initial conditions to achieve sustainable transportation “with less total effort than other central European cities” – but that opportunity must be acted on soon, before the culture of private car use becomes too deeply inscribed in peoples’ behaviour.
Luckily, local organisations are already working to improve the image of cycling in the city and across Bulgaria. Organisations like
- velorazhodka, which organises a number of different weekly cycle rides in and around Sofia and Varna,
- Factor Foundation, which last year promoted its Cycle Safe campaign via a 3150km marathon around Bulgaria, and
- Sofia Green tours, which organise free cycle tours of Sofia.
Come on, people of Sofia, on yer bike!